Getting together with books
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Getting together with books

Yavneh students join Jewish Home elders on Zoom to talk about what they’ve read

Residents and staff at the Jewish Home in Rockleigh and students at Yavneh in Paramus talk about books on Zoom.
Residents and staff at the Jewish Home in Rockleigh and students at Yavneh in Paramus talk about books on Zoom.

Books bring generations together, even during a pandemic.

It has certainly been more of a challenge getting together so that we can create that alchemy of personal connections and insightful moments. But, as they say, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

The yellow brick road to get us to where we needed to go, and the way forward these past several months, has been through Zoom technology.

Even those of us who are less than tech savvy — if we’re tech shy, or even bordering on tech phobic — have been won over by the power and versatility of Zoom. It’s taken us to the milestone events, to the places where we couldn’t go in person. With a few clicks, we’ve been transported to smachot — happy occasions — such as weddings, dinners, family get-togethers, and baby-naming parties. Zoom also has brought us to sad and tragic events, to funerals and shiva visits.

We’ve been able to continue teaching and connecting with our students.

Undoubtedly, we’re not used to this extended social isolation, it feels so out of sync with who we are, because people really do need other people. Technology, however, has enabled us to take the necessary social detours, to reach out and touch someone’s hand virtually, giving us some semblance of normalcy.

For the elder population, this has been an especially isolating and lonely time, when they have been unable to hug and be in close proximity with their children and grandchildren.

For several years, students at the Yavneh Academy in Paramus had visited the elders at the Jewish Home at Rockleigh, and had engaged with them in a variety of intergenerational projects, including a book club.

Sunni Herman, the Jewish Home’s executive vice president, is a strong advocate for the home’s ongoing partnership with Yavneh. “This is the 10th year that the Jewish Home and Yavneh have partnered together,” she said. “Now more than ever, we see the necessity of optimizing use of technology for joint learning.”

Chani Lichtiger, Yavneh’s director of educational technology, spearheaded the program with the Jewish Home. She wasn’t about to drop the ball because of the pandemic. Ms. Lichtiger had invested a considerable amount of time and emotional energy into this partnership. She and her team also have guided the Yavneh faculty all these months, using Zoom technology for our education curriculum throughout the school.

Ms. Lichtiger realized that she could bring those two separate areas — the school’s partnership with the Jewish Home and her work teaching about Zoom — together. “Technology has allowed the students and the elders to enjoy and connect through our book discussion, as if we were in the same room,” she said. “There is nothing like learning firsthand from the elders about their stories and their personal immigration experiences, and the book stimulated memories and prompted discussion.”

I teach a variety of reading and language arts classes at Yavneh. Before the meeting, my fourth-grade students read “What Was Ellis Island?” by Patricia Brennan Demuth, and so did the elders who participated in the program. As they read, my students learned about the history of Ellis Island as a powerful immigration center and landmark, and they also gleaned information about their own family histories of immigration from discussions with parents and grandparents. This was very enlightening to all involved.

One student discovered that her family’s original last name was changed when her grandparents immigrated to America. “My great-grandparents came through Ellis Island over 100 years ago, with a different and very long name,” she said. When this student visited downtown Manhattan during our recent winter break, she was so excited about seeing the Statue of Liberty in the distance that her mom took a picture of the scene and sent it to me.

Another student spoke about his families’ German Ashkenazi custom of using a wimple, pronounced “vimple” — a long cloth — as a swaddle for a baby at his brit milah. Years later, it often is used under the chuppah.

Through their discussions with family members, my students discovered that their relatives generally came to America for a better life, for more freedom to practice Judaism. But they also learned how arduous it was to learn a new language, which they’d have to speak in the place of their own native tongues — Russian, Hungarian, Romanian, or German. Most of all, the notion of separating from their families, leaving behind loved ones, resonated with the students. It was difficult for them to imagine such a break with family members.

How do you say goodbye to cousins, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, they wondered. When will you see them again? Will you ever see them again?

Finally, we all looked forward to our live book discussion with the elders on Zoom, and some of us actually got dressed up for the occasion. The students all had prepared elements of their family history to share with the elders, followed by questions to elicit discussion about the book and their personal stories of immigration.

A lively and meaningful discussion between the generations ensued, and the elders were ready to share their personal stories.

Margaret’s family had moved from Kiev many years ago. She said, “I didn’t know any English when I came here. My husband was a doctor in Kiev, but when we moved to America, he decided to become a nurse instead.” Margaret explained that when they came to America, it was hard because he had to take several tests to regain his medical license. It was easier to become a nurse.

Flaurie said that her family left Russia because of anti-Semitism, “and they made a good life here.” She also spoke about her father eventually becoming a teacher.

We learned how unchecked anti-Semitism can wreak havoc when an elder spoke about the pogrom in her town, and how one of her relatives hid in a pickle barrel to escape the attack.

“What’s a pickle barrel, and how can you hide in that?” several students asked. They were amazed by this story, and it demonstrated how life was so different for people at that time and in those situations.

The elders also explained that when you arrived in America, you did almost anything just to make a living. You couldn’t be picky, and “we needed to work to make money.” While life in America wasn’t perfect — there were obstacles and hardships — the consensus among the elders was that being here was preferable to their previous and often precarious lives in Europe.

Our elders indeed are treasure troves of history, information, and wonderful stories. We shared and discovered so much from our intergenerational gathering, and we were all so happy that we made it work and can continue to maintain our partnership.

While our relationships with people may look different nowadays, it’s important to stay connected, and to continue to tell all of our stories.

Esther Kook of Teaneck is a learning specialist at Yavneh Academy and a freelance writer.

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